Make someone's Christmas merry with an offbeat gift

HOW ABOUT some offbeat holiday gift ideas?

First, the charities. I have given a few times to the Bay Area's Fix Our Ferals, which provides spay/neuter services for feral cats. They'll even lend you a trap for a cat in your neighborhood so they can fix it for free. A couple I know asked that people donate to Fix Our Ferals as a wedding gift because they love cats. I did it because I can't stand cats. Whatever your reasons, they're at

If you care about free speech, freedom from government spying and the ability to copy a CD you bought onto your iPod, you should give to the Electronic Frontier Foundation. A few lawyers and activists based in San Francisco's Mission District fight for privacy and consumer rights and against censorship and hackable

e-voting machines. You can donate

online at

Now, the eccentric and pragmatic gifts. I'm a big fan of earplugs. You can get little packets of disposable plush earplugs at the ACE hardware stores for a few cents. Earplugs are great for sleeping on loud nights, for relaxing in a park or for riding on public transit. Somehow wearing earplugs on the bus is less obvious than those white headphone cords. The size that iPods are getting these days, though ... Have you seen the new Shuffle? It's the size of a stamp! A $79 stamp. Soon they'll be small enough to fit inside your ears, and all you'll have is white earplug-shaped buds, and they'll get lost in your pockets. But I digress.

Soap might seem old hat, but it's new to me. Lots of people give special scented soap. My freshman year of high school was the first time a friend gave me a bath soap basket for Christmas. I wondered for weeks whether she was trying to tell me I smelled bad. The Irish Spring in my shower disappeared in a week as I scrubbed like a post-"Fear Factor" Lady Macbeth. But now I understand that if people want to passive-aggressively tell you that you stink, they'll put a plastic ribbon on a big bottle of Dial and leave it on your desk, and not shell out for artfully arranged shells.

Anyway, Hydra Soap in Berkeley and San Francisco has bath salts, soaps, "chill pills" that foam and infuse bath water, and at least 50 varieties of rubber duckies. They make the soap themselves and will cut blocks to your specifications, so vegetarians can pretend they're at an old-school butcher's shop. Or you can order online at I recommend the gardenia chill pills.

"Professor Solomon" is some guy online who's posted a surprisingly useful guide to finding lost objects. He lays out a disciplined process that takes the frustration out of the search and maximizes your chances of finding your keys, book report, etc. You can read his tips online at or buy his book there for $7. It's an investment in sanity.

And now I really reveal my neuroses by recommending arts and media. "This American Life" is a terrific public radio show with funny and heartbreaking short documentaries. I have the same feeling listening to a good episode of "This American Life" that I do in church, a sense of connection to my fellow humans. You can listen free on the radio or online, or you can buy CDs or buy audio files to download. That's at

If you like "This American Life" and the art of Brandon Bird (, then e-mail me because we might be related. Bird, a Bay Area resident, makes traditional-looking paintings of cultural icons (Batman and Abe Lincoln, for example), and has the same obsession with "Law & Order" I do. All December, Bird is shipping orders for prints of his work via USPS Priority Mail at no extra charge. I bought my husband Bird's Star Trek-themed "The Death of Jennifer Sisko" for his birthday.

If you know a child, treat his or her parents to a day of babysitting. Teach the kid something you know. Make a memory.

Finally, a gift to yourself: Take stock of your career. Are you where you want to be or on your way? Is your employer paying you what you're worth? A lot of people would say you should be thinking about your relationships and your family, but that's where my promise of offbeatness comes in. Don't forget what takes up at least a third of your life and sets the foundation for the other bits.

Sumana Harihareswara writes for Bay Area Living each week. You can write to her at